A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

28686837Pages: 304

Published:  October 18, 2016

Format:  E-book from netgalley






A strange, unique, intellectual novel.  This, my first Jonathan Lethem novel, was decidedly interesting yet eclectic.  It was full of twists & turns as well as obscure references to historical, literary and film characters.  I felt that this book was in a genre the opposite of “chick-lit.”  It seemed geared toward men, focused on men, devoid of emotion.  The women in this novel were there ministering to the needs of the men.  It is about games, identity, masks, power, sex.  Relationships lacked any depth within this strange book which is full of smoke and mirrors, self identity crises, puppetry, and a feeling of unreality.

This is a novel about a handsome backgammon hustler, Bruno, who helps empty the pockets of the wealthy with the assistance of his handler, Falk, who arranges these meetings.  One night in Singapore, he encounters a high school acquaintance who takes it upon himself to learn backgammon and challenge Bruno to a match.  This is about the same time that Bruno notices the “blot” in his vision.  Of course, “blot” is also a backgammon term meaning, “a man exposed by being placed alone on a point and therefore able to be taken by the other player” making this a double entendre. This is the beginning of Bruno’s losing streak and ultimate diagnosis of a facial tumor which is causing the blot in his vision. There is a surgeon in San Francisco, Noah Behringer,  who will operate and Stolarsky agrees to pay all costs.  Thus, Bruno, penniless and at the mercy of others, is brought to Berkley, his hometown, a place he vowed he would never return.

Once the surgery is completed, Bruno feels naked without the blot and requests a mask.  This is reminiscent of his last backgammon game during which a young woman serving food came in wearing a mask and was naked from the waist down.  The gambler felt that he could communicate telepathically earlier in his life and the blot had helped to protect him from this unwanted gift.  Now that the blot is gone, he feels he is exposed again (that his telepathy has returned) and wants the blot back.  He feels that he was present during the surgery and remembers all that happened.  In fact, that is the only chapter which is told not from the gambler’s perspective but from that of the surgeon, almost as if he was inside the surgeon’s head at the time of surgery watching it happen, a very clever twist of story-telling.

The gambler becomes a pawn of Stolarsky’s.  Having no money of his own, he is living in an apartment within a building Sturgeon owns.  He must wear clothing that he purchases at the store Stolarsky owns, so ends up dressed in “Abide” clothing.  He is told to work at Kropotke’s burgers where he is made to wear a burlap mask with a noose around his neck.  Bruno, as a character, seems like a pawn in a game other people are controlling, either Falk (his handler) or Stolarsky, at this particular interval in his life.

Madchen is a beautiful blond he met on a ferry when he was headed to Berlin.  She was also the masked woman naked from the waist down who served sandwiches during his backgammon match in Berlin.  She is the only person who tries to contact him during his time in Berkley, as he seems to have no close friends or family.  When she is flown out by Stolarsky, she also becomes another piece in a game that Stolarsky seems to be playing, against Bruno and the anarchists with whom Bruno has taken up.

This novel is full of double entendres, irony, wit, intellectualism.  It is enticing, thought-provoking and strange.  For those who enjoy this type of novel, it will be dearly loved.  It is definitely not main-stream.  It is off the beaten path, odd, but brilliantly written.  3-stars

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What does the blot represent to Bruno?
  2. How is Bruno’s childhood important to the novel and what he has become?
  3. Explain Bruno’s telepathic powers.  Do these help him or hinder him in life, or make no difference?
  4. What effect does Bruno’s telepathy have on the surgeon who operated?
  5. What role does Madchen play in the novel?
  6. Explain why Alexander Bruno does not feel that he exists anymore at the end?
  7. Why is Tira Harpaz important?  What does she represent?


Review by Dwight Garner from the New York Times

Jonathan Lethem’s website

New York Times Review by Kurt Anderson


Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

29437949Pages:  304

Published:  August 9, 2016

Format:  Audiobook






Behind Closed Doors is the debut novel of B.A. Paris, reminiscent of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.  It is a domestic thriller that one wants to plow through.  It keeps you on the edge of your seat, needing to know the eventual outcome.  I listened to the audio version of this and thought the narrator, Georgia Maguire, did a terrific job.

This book made me very uncomfortable, however.  The narrative is from the perspective of a psychologically abused wife, Grace, whose husband, Jack, meant physical harm to the Grace’s younger sister with Down’s syndrome, Milly.   Grace is literally imprisoned by her husband who derives pleasure from the fear he senses in his victims.  She is locked in a room most of the time and cannot write emails or socialize unless under strict supervision of her husband.  Although this book invokes some real truths of domestic abuse, it really goes way over the top.  Jack, the psychopath, is absolute scum of the earth.  It was mind-blowing to me that someone could dream up this scenario, and the harm he wishes to inflict on Milly.

I found that the novel required the reader to take several leaps of faith to allow the wife to fall into this situation.  Jack and Grace have only a few short months of getting to know each other, and during this time have very little quality or intimate time.  Jack asks Grace to quit her job, handover the money from selling her flat, and convinces Grace’s parents to move to New Zealand immediately after the wedding.  He is whittling away her autonomy even before they are married.  He does not like the idea of having Grace’s sister, Milly,  in the wedding, and when Milly falls backwards down the stairs to the church (necessitating hospitalization for a broken leg), as he is walking alongside her, Grace is completely non-suspecting.  The wedding proceeds despite this.  Then, Jack disappears on their wedding night not to return until the next day just before their flight, sending a repugnant text message and then refusing to take Grace to visit Milly before heading to the airport as they had planned.  And Grace still agrees to go to Thailand with him!  These things were all hard to swallow!

However, once Grace is fully secured as his prisoner, and the mind games begin, it is rewarding to see Grace begin to win some of these games, and eventually come out as a survivor.  It is also rewarding to find that Ester and Adam had connected the dots and would help her in the end.

In summary, for those who love a good edge of your seat thriller, you will probably really enjoy this.  The writing isn’t spectacular and if you look closely, there seem to be flaws in the creation of the premise, but if you can let that go, it is enjoyable.  Again, I thought Georgia Maguire did an excellent job with the audible version, so you might want to give that a go.  3-stars

Discussion Questions:

  1.  The format of the book alternates between past and present.  How does this add to the book?
  2. What clues are present prior to Jack and Grace’s marriage that Jack might be a psychopath?
  3. Do you think Grace falls in love with Jack before marrying him or just the idea of having a charming man who is accepting of her sister as well?
  4. Why do you think Grace is so vulnerable to Jack’s charms?
  5. How do the Jack and Grace appear to their friends?
  6. What key pieces of information does Ester pick up on?
  7. What tactics of domestic abuse does Jack employ in his dealings with Grace?
  8. How is Milly depicted in this novel?  What are some key roles that she plays?
  9. Is the ending satisfying or were you hoping that Jack was found out publicly?
  10. What do you predict will happen in the aftermath of this novel?  Will Grace be cleared?


Review on bookchatter.net by a fellow blogger

Discussion Questions by Litlovers



Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide


Pages:  305

Published:  June 7, 2016

Format:  Audiobook






“The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.”  –Akan Proverb

This magnificent sweeping tale of eight generations gives a broad look and much insight into the history of slavery and the slave trade. The writing is incredible!  Each chapter focuses upon a family member and is so richly described, containing so much history, emotion and conflict that each could theoretically be further developed into a novel of its own.

Homegoing begins in Cape Coast, Africa in which is modern day Ghana.  Cobbe has a child with a house girl, who we know as Maame.  Effia, the daughter, is raised as Babba’s (Cobbe’s first wife’s) daughter.  This house slave ends up free by marrying an Asante and has a second daughter Esi who ends up kidnapped by the Fantes and sold into slavery.   For a brief time period, Esi lives in the basement of the castle with the other slaves while her half-sister, Effia is above, married to James, one of the slave traders.  Both Esi and Effia have the necklaces handed down to them by their mother, until Esi’s is lost as her ancestry and heritage is stolen from her by being sent to America as a slave.  The novel begins with Effia’s and Esi’s stories and continues through generations upon generation of their offspring.

The book has two parts.  The first half reads like a fable.  It is vibrant with the culture of the African people.  The story-telling is itself true to the culture of these people, full of their belief systems.  For me, the magic of the book lies in this first half.  It is fascinating to learn about the Asantes and Fantes, their beliefs, and the warring that occurs between them. The second half becomes more straight forward in its manner of relating the stories of the characters, as we get closer to modern day.

I listened to this novel and the audio version is amazing!  I also obtained a physical copy of this book afterwards so I could refer back to spellings of names of characters.

The most important theme running through this book is that of slavery and what it did to these people, effectively cutting off their ancestry, their heritage, making them a different people from Africans.  Marjory, in chapter 14, does not feel African-American, because she was born in Ghana.  This was reminiscent, for me, of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s “Americanah”  in this respect.  However, it is the in-between period which becomes so illuminated and shocking when viewed over eight generations.  Gyasi depicts a beautifully functioning African culture that becomes fractured by the slave trade.    The horrors of slavery and it’s aftermath are put in perspective with this broadly sweeping novel.  We are still dealing with the aftermath today, and Gyasi bravely posits the question of where will it end.

Even though each chapter reads as a short story, Gyasi, does a beautiful job of weaving themes through the story, connecting them in so many ways.  Gyasi tackles so many subjects within this novel that it is impossible to enumerate them all in a quick review.  I’ve touched on many within the discussion questions.  Suffice it to say, this is an incredible read, and I recommend it to everyone!  I am amazed that this is a debut novel by such a young author!images

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Cape Coast Castleslavetrade-deblijmap











Map of the slave trade


Favorite Quotes:

“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you.  Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”  — Essie’s Maame

“Evil is like a shadow, it follows you everywhere.”

“I can only make the impossible attainable…  People think they are coming to me for advice, but really, they come to me for permission.”  — Mampanyin, witch doctor

“Beulah was running.  Maybe this was where it started, Jo thought.  Maybe Beulah was seeing something more clearly on the nights she had these dreams, a little black child fighting in her sleep against an opponent she couldn’t name come morning because in the light that opponent just looked like the world around her.  Intangible evil.  Unspeakable unfairness.  Beulah ran in her sleep, ran like she’d stolen something, when really she had done nothing other than expect the peace, the clarity, that came with dreaming.  Yes, Jo thought, this was where it started, but when, where, did it end?”

“Evil begets evil.  It grows.  It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.”  —Akua

“When someone does wrong whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net in the water.  He keeps only one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal.  No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.” –Akua

“Most people lived on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath.”  –Marcus

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the theme of fire throughout the book.
  2. Discuss the meaning of family and ancestry, knowing where you come from in this book.
  3. How are women treated within different cultures in this novel?
  4. Discuss the importance of scars as a theme in this book.  Does the author believe that scars can be inherited or passed down from one generation to the next?
  5. Who was your favorite character and why?  Which chapter did you like best?
  6. Discuss the meaning of obroni and the effect this word had on people.
  7. What do you think the meaning of the title “Homegoing” is?
  8. What effect do the British have on Africa as slave traders?  as missionaries?
  9. Discuss the theme of rape in the book.  Both Ese’s mame and Ese are raped as slaves.
  10. Discuss the theme of power and the various places it is found:  in Effia’s beauty, in Kujo’s physical strength, in James’ lineage…
  11. Discuss the character of Quey and how his father deals with his apparent homosexuality.
  12. How is race perceived differently in different locations?  Africa, the south vs. the north?
  13. How is race defined in different ways within the novel?  By skin color, by speech?
  14. What is the role of religion and belief systems within this novel?
  15. Discuss the quotes mentioned above and their relevance to the novel and it’s themes.
  16. Yaw is a teacher of history.  What does he teach his students about the learning of history?  How is the theme of storytelling important within this chapter as well as throughout the novel?
  17. Discuss the figure of Akua.  Crazy woman or sage woman?  Is it a matter of interpretation?

Isabel Wilkerson’s Review from the New York Times

Michiko Kakutani”s review in the NY Times

Reading Guide by Lit Lovers

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide




Pages:  256


Expected Publication Date:  October 11, 2016

Format:  E-book from netgalley




“the island is a theatre.  Prospero is a director.  He’s putting on a play, within which there’s another play.  If his magic holds and his play is successful, he’ll get his heart’s desire.  But if he fails…”

This is a marvelous re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  It is a tale of prisons within prisons, of prisoners who do not realize they’re imprisoned, of vengeance and revenge.  The most beautiful part of this book is that it is prisoners who are putting on the play and their thoughts on the characters, plot and imagined future outcomes are all explored.  Margaret Atwood’s retelling, in effect, goes deeper than the original.  I, as the reader, was left amazed at how well all the intricacies of plot worked out to mirror the original work in such a way that it actually took the plot further, creating a doubling effect:  a play within a play (maybe within another play).  It feels genius as you read it, and further intensifies the prisons within prisons theme.

This is fourth installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which excellent writers are tackling retellings of Shakespeare’s literature.  “The Tempest” is the last written work of William Shakespeare, written in 1610-1611.  I plan to re-read The Tempest and rewrite this review (or at least rethink it).  I am that inspired by this novel.

There were a couple fairly major departures from the novel.  The largest being that, Miranda, Felix’s daughter in Atwood’s version has died at the age of 3, however Felix imagines he still sees her and she is there with him until the end of the novel when he is able to release her.  I actually think this brings an additional element of fantasy to the novel, a hint of madness to the sorcerer.  She actually becomes entwined into the role of the fairy as enacted in the prison.  It also allows for another level of imprisonment.

This version does not take place on an island, but Felix (Prospero) banishes himself to a remote area living in a shack with landlords that maybe never were.  It is all very mysterious.  He lives in seclusion for twelve years prior to taking the job at the prison where through a literacy program he and the inmates re-enact Shakespeare plays.  It is here at the correctional facility that “The Tempest” is re-enacted in more ways than one with the outcome that Felix desires, the overthrowing of Antonio who had taken away his theater directorship.

The work that Felix does at the correctional facility feels magical.  The relationship he develops with the inmates and the enthusiasm and interest they show for working on the plays seems incredible.  As quoted from Felix within the novel, “Maybe the island really is magic.  Maybe it’s a kind of mirror:  each one sees in it a reflection of his inner self.  Maybe it brings out who you really are.   Maybe it’s a place where you’re supposed to learn something.  But what is each one of these people supposed to learn?  And do they learn it?”  This seems to be exactly what is happening within Felix’s theater in the prison.

This is a novel full of modern day wit, whimsy, vigor.  Margaret Atwood infuses rap, dance, old world swearing, and much self discovery into the prisoner’s re-enactment.  It is super fun to read, yet has its dark melancholic side in true Atwood form, and can be dissected in so many ways.  The prisoners each have their own interpretations of the characters and their expected outcomes, which is true of all great literature.    I highly recommend this to Shakespeare fans or just fans of great literature!  This is Atwood at her best!  images


Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the theme of prisons and how it relates to the theme of the play/novel.
  2. How do you feel about the doubling effect this retelling has on the original?
  3. Discuss the modernization of the play within the prison setting with rewriting and song/rap and dance.  How is this true to the original and how does it differ?
  4. Discuss the role of magic and fantasy in the original “The Tempest” and in Atwood’s retelling.  How do drugs help in the retelling?
  5. Why do you think she titled the novel “Hag-Seed?”
  6. Discuss the role of Caliban?  In what way is Caliban, “this thing of darkness” in some sense Prospero’s?
  7. Felix tells his class that there were 9 prisons within Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  How many prisons can you count within this novel?  Can you make a list of prisoner/prison/jailer?
  8. What is music used for within this novel?
  9. What is magic used for?
  10. Who are the monsters?
  11. Who wants revenge and why?


Review of Hag-Seed from “The Scotsman”

Margaret Atwood’s website

Striker, Slow Down!: A Calming Book for Kids who are Always on the Go by Emma Hughes, Illustrations by John Smisson ~ Book Review





Pages: 40

Expected Publication:  October 21, 2016

Format:  E-book from netgalley



This is a cute picture book about a cat who is alway wound up, keeping busy, running circles around himself.  It is full of gentle reminders to slow down, relax, find quiet.    My 6 year old summed it as “a book about finding peace.”   Interestingly, I have an 8 year old who is this “on-the-go”, “can’t-sit-still” personality.  My 6 and 4 year olds with whom I read the book with, had trouble identifying their brother in this story.  This would be a lovely book to read with a child who has these tendencies, as a reminder that it’s ok to slow down, especially in today’s society where there is so much emphasis on starting sports and other activities so early.  In today’s world we are always telling are children to go, go, go.  This is a nice reminder to children and parents alike that it’s great to slow down, breath, think, be.  The illustrations are lovely: simplistic and fun.  It makes sense that a yoga instructor wrote this, someone who has a practice of patience, of mediation.  This is definitely something our children need more of in life, which is easy to forget.   I recommend this book highly, especially for anxious children, or those with ADD.3-stars


Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you know anyone who acts like Striker?
  2. How does Striker finally calm down?
  3. What ways do you find to calm down?
  4. What activities do you find relaxing?
  5. What activities make you anxious?


The Girls by Emma Cline ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide





Pages: 355

Published: June 14, 2016

Format: Audiobook




What an awesome premise for a novel!  Who isn’t intrigued by cult culture and the brutal Manson murders.  This story is told from the point of view of one of “the girls,”  one who does not participate in the murders, but nonetheless becomes drawn in by them and a part of their group.  It is told from the perspective of adulthood in a way, that makes the allure and enchantment of being part of this group understandable for girls lacking close bonds in their life.  But, the perspective of the town and those not drawn in is also interspersed within the novel to remind the reader of the real conditions there, the filth, squalor, and wickedness.

Evie, the narrator was easy prey to fall into the cult.  Her parents had divorced.  She wasn’t feeling particularly close to either one of them and she and her best friend were on the outs.  She had been carelessly dismissed by the boy she had a crush on.  She was lonely and looking for close companionship.  When she saw Suzanne, she was immediately intrigued by her easy free manner.  She began feeling the allure of belong to a group that took care of each other, that laughed together and teased each other.  A group that had tremendous freedom from the outside world and its rules.

Evie, the fictional narrator of this story is coming of age at a time when her home environment is dysfunctional and lonely.  She begins to spend more and more time at the ranch with “the girls” who really were that, girls in their late teen years, mostly runaways with no where else to go.  She participates in the drug culture, the sex, the thievery and deception.  She feels like she is willing to do whatever is asked for the group and puts them above all else.  They do not include her in the murders, kicking her out of the car at the last minute, which begs the question, could she have been capable of committing the heinous murders as well?  Were these girls inherently evil or was it the cult setting and the drug culture?  These questions and mysteries stay with Evie into adulthood, as she wonders what might have been.

Evie’s story is juxtaposed with her modern day life far into adulthood, in which she is housesitting for her friend Dan.  Dan’s son, who has sociopathic tendencies, shows up at the house with his very young, perhaps 14 year old girlfriend.  This young girl is vulnerable and accepting of circumstances and treatment that she does not deserve from Julian (Dan’s son) and his friend Zev.  Evie tries to impart some wisdom, however it falls upon deaf ears.  How easy is it for young girls to be swept up along the wrong path, to accept the cruelty of boys and men as they are learning who they are at a point when they are being women and may not have close relationships with family, friends, or mentors to help them through.

The story is thrilling and exciting.  It keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It makes you rethink what it was like to have been one of “the girls.”  It is a very loose interpretation that largely ignores the racist implications of Charles Manson’s mission as well as some very horrific ways in which he treated the girls in his quasi-commune.  However, it is excellently written, fun to read, and brings up some great moral questions.  images-2

charles-manson-195 140807172408-10-manson-murders-restricted-horizontal-gallery05landis-master768-v2



Charles Manson









In the courthouse.  Susan Atkins is on left behind the guard.



charles-manson-312Some Manson family members at the Spahn Ranch.





Discussion Questions:

  1.  How are young Evie and Sasha alike and dissimilar?  Do you think Evie sees younger self in Sasha?
  2. How has the grown Evie changed from her young self?
  3. Why do you think that Evie is not angry at her father for cheating and leaving her mother?
  4. Why do you think Evie pities her mother?
  5. How would you describe Evie’s friendship with Connie?  With Suzanne?  How do these differ?
  6. How do you feel about Evie’s introduction to sex?
  7. Why do you think that Evie cannot see the Ranch for the broken down trash heap that it is?
  8. What is the allure of this group to Evie and others?  What keeps them there when things start to fall apart?
  9. When the police finally come, why do you think Russell runs and the girls don’t?
  10. Why do you think that Evie never says anything to anyone about her knowledge of the murders over those months when they were searching for the killer/s?
  11. Who is Evie’s bond to?  Why is this important?
  12. Suzanne imparts looks to Evie many times through the course of the novel, which are difficult to interpret.   How do you think Suzanne feels about Evie?  Why do you think Suzanne was hesitant to bring Evie to the ranch initially?  Why do you think Suzanne distances herself from Evie after Evie’s rendezvous with Russell? Why do you think Suzanne pushed Evie from the car prior to the murders?
  13. Evie saw a growing side to Suzanne with time that was full of hatred.  What do you think fueled this hatred?  Do you think that Suzanne was inherently evil or was made evil by her affiliation with Russell and the culture on the ranch?

Outline of the Manson murders with prison times served for all involved

Discussion Guide by LitLovers

New York Times Review of “The Girls”

The Pruwahaha Monster by Jean-Paul Mulders, Illustrations by Jacques Maes and Lise Braekers ~ Book Review




Pages: 26

Expected Publication Date:  October 4, 2016

Format:  E-book from Netgalley




This is a gorgeous picture book with a beautiful story in such a unique format.  I loved it to pieces and, even as a parent, I could read it over and over, discovering new bits of language and illustration to enjoy and appreciate.

There is a foreward that lets the reader know the the story is told by a father as he pushes is son on a swing.  The story he tells is slightly scary, about a monster looking to eat a boy, however, the moral is empowerment for the boy not acknowledging the monster.

I love the shape of the book, being long and narrow.  Even though I read an electronic version, I could envision holding this shape in my hands.  The words are usually contained only on every other page, drawing you further into the beauty and importance of the illustrations, which really go hand and hand with the story.  The story would be nothing without the illustrations, and vice versa.  I love the detail of the illustrations and the writing, the way the words invite you in to search for the acorn, the bicycle, the bird poop.  The father tells the story through the voice of the monster which leaves the reader guessing and searching, but maybe also knowing all along who he is.   It is lovely that the 5 year old boy is unfazed by the monster.  It is a beautiful story with a wonderful moral that is perfect for discussion with children about the meaning of monsters, especially ones of their own creation.

The writing is beautiful.  It doesn’t shy away from difficult vocabulary.  It is descriptive and invokes all the senses:  vision, smell, touch, noise, taste.    I love the short sentence series, that seem childlike, about what the monster sees, about the foods that the monster does not like.  I love the different type sizes and fonts to remind the reader to speak those words with different volumes or inflections.   Most of all, I love the open-ended-ness of the story, the feeling of mystery, the wanting to go back and search through the pictures and words for answers.  Gorgeous!!  I recommend this to 5 year olds and their parents everywhere!  images

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why wasn’t the boy afraid of the monster?
  2. Who was the monster?  Was he real?
  3. What protects the boy?
  4. What is a monster?
  5. What happens when he boy does not acknowledge the monster?



Nicotine by Nell Zink ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide



Pages: 304

Expected Publication Date:  October 4, 2016

Format:  E-book from Netgalley



“She wills her body to be equally wraithlike.  Not sodden, not heavy, not dead, but filled with crackling, electric life, like a stale Marlboro on fire.”

Nell Zink’s Nicotine is a social satire on a grand scale.  It invokes and satirizes the philosophies of shamanism, pragmatism, and anarchy.  It begins with Amalia at age 13 being “adopted” by Norm from a garbage heap in Cartagena, Columbia.  From there, the novel flash forwards to Amalia’s daughter, Penny, at age 12 at her father’s psychadelic healing center.  Her mother is now “married” to Norm and Penny has two older half brothers, who happen to be older than her mother.

When Penny’s father falls ill and is on hospice, Penny is the primary caregiver.  It is said by many of the Shamanist followers at the funeral services that Penny always had that spiritual connection like Norm.

Upon her father’s death, Penny, now in her 20s (a recent business school grad) thinks she will take over his childhood home which has been taken over by squatters, anarchists that are united by their love of nicotine.  Hence, the the name “Nicotine” for the house they have squatted.  There are many houses in this area of New Jersey being squatted by millennials.  Penny falls in love with one of the squatters, who happens to be asexual, and decides to live with them.  Her brother, Matt, decides he will kick out the squatters and he, too, falls in love with one of the squatters.

Penny’s mother initially declares her love for Matt (Penny’s half-brother) which is not returned.  However, this brings up questions of what happened when they were younger.  Could Matt be Penny’s father?  Amalia, too, goes to try to kick out the squatters, and falls in love with one of them.

Matt is a huge sociopath and gets what he deserves when he lands in a huge amount of shit.  Everyone and everything gets confused and turned on its head.  “Nicotine” becomes the “Norman Baker Center” bringing together the Norman Baker followers and millennials alike.

This one was tough for me to connect to.   I appreciated the social satire and the brilliance of the author, but honestly did not feel too much for the characters.  It felt like all of the ideas were thrown together in a slurry and the result was interesting and at times amusing, but just did not seem as polished as it could have been.  2star


Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss how and why this is a social satire?  How are the millennials portrayed?
  2. Why do you think Rob was portrayed as asexual in the beginning? What do you think made him sexual in the end?
  3. What do you speculate was the nature of Amalia and Matt’s relationship when they were younger?
  4. Why do you think Jazz continues to communicate with Matt, even after it’s clear that he is a sociopath?  Do you think she still has feelings for him?
  5. What is the role of Sorry in this novel?  Discuss the meaning of her name.
  6. What is your view of Norm by the end of the novel?
  7. What secrets do you think he wanted to write down before he was rendered incapable of doing so?
  8. How are the police depicted in this novel?
  9. How does the book depict pragmatism, anarchy and shamanism?  How does it satirize these philosophies?

Review of “Nicotine” published in “The Guardian”

An interview with Nell Zink published by “The Millions”

Gracie Meets a Ghost by Keiko Sena ~ Book Review




Pages: 32

Expected Publication: October 1, 2016

Format:  E-book from Netgalley


A perfectly timed ghost story for children!  Gracie is bespectacled rabbit who loses her glasses while playing in the mountains with her friends.   She goes in search of them, bumbling around into other animals, helpless without her glasses.  A friendly looking ghost attempts to scare her, however, because she cannot see the ghost she isn’t frightened.  She promises she will look at the ghost once her glasses are found.  The ghost appears kind and searches all night for her glasses.  Upon putting the glasses on, it is daylight, and the ghost has now vanished.  This is a cute ghost story that is nonthreatening.  It is a story that would be great to read with a child who needs to wear glasses, as the book brings up some great talking points around this.  The illustrations are playful and sweet.  I recommend this book for children ages 3-5, especially those who might need glasses.  images-2




Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide





Pages: 192

Published:  August 9, 2016

Format:  E-book





Exquisite!  Such a beautifully written piece of work, that it felt like poetry, both in the flow and the content.  It has an ethereal dreamy quality and is full of rich metaphors.

I have been struggling with my review of this book, because whatever I seem to write doesn’t really do the book justice.  It is such a unique beautiful piece of writing.  The story begins with August, the narrator, returning by train to visit her dying father.  She catches a glimpse of Sylvia, a childhood friend and memories come flooding back to her.  The ethereal quality of the book has in part to do with the fact that the narrator is looking way back on an earlier part of her life;  in part that she is remembering her childhood, one in which she could not comprehend or accept the death of her mother; and thirdly the poetic quality to the writing.

The idea that August thinks her mother will return and convinces her younger brother of the same, feels so honest, so real, so a part of how children really cope with the loss of a parent.  Within the book, different cultural rites of death are mentioned reminding the reader that death is there, but not letting us know the actual circumstances of the mother’s death until later.

Once August arrives in Brooklyn with her father and brother, the father cages the children in the house worried about the dangers of the outside world.  This backfires as her younger brother falls through the glass window injuring his arm in his attempts to watch the outside world.   At this point, August and her brother are allowed outside to experience the world.

August reminisces about her female friendships from this era in her life.   She had developed a close-knit group of girlfriends who become her “home, ” her family, and this allows her feel alive again, after feeling cooped up in their Brooklyn apartment.  Together these girls feel stronger and braver.  Their friendship gives them a sense of safety, of home, of togetherness that is lacking from their actual home environments.  They grow into puberty together, date, experiment with sex.  They confide in each other about  things that they do not feel safe confiding to their own parents.

August’s mother’s words about not trusting female friendships keep echoing back to her.  “Don’t trust women, my mother said to me. Even the ugly ones will take what you thought was yours.”  August learns how this can be true as the friendships begin to slip and in some cases fracture.  However, for a time, the friendships are a beautiful thing and allow the girls to feel powerful in a world where they are vulnerable, on account of being female, minorities and poor.

This reflection is of Brooklyn in the 1970’s in a neighborhood that is turning from white to black.  While August finds comfort in her friendships, her father finds comfort in religion.  It is a stunning look at this place and time period, the struggles these girls faced as they came of age and the hope and courage needed to face it.   I highly recommend this to everyone.  images





Biafra  – map




Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think August did not realize her mother was dead or did she just not accept it?
  2. Discuss the role of friendship in the novel.
  3. Discuss the role of religion in this novel.
  4. Discuss race relations in Brooklyn in the 1970s as described in this novel.
  5. Compare their Brooklyn to life as described in Biafra.
  6. Why do you think that August does not find comfort and hope with her father?
  7. Why does Jennie disappear each time her children return?
  8. Why can’t Gigi tell her parents about the soldier?  Why does she think they won’t believe her?
  9. Did her mother’s prophecy about friendships become true?
  10. Discuss the ugliness of the surroundings contrasted by the beauty of the friendships.


Jacqueline Woodson’s website

Review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post

Review by Tayari Jones in the New York Times

sharing a love of books


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